This story is by Mackenzie Bodily (M.W. Bodily) and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I was eight when Penny was born. Still young, but old enough to remember my mother’s pregnancy. Old enough to remember her water breaking at three a.m. on a Wednesday. Old enough to remember waiting in the hospital with my uncle Jack. Old enough to remember riding in the back of the sedan when Father and I brought Mother and baby Penny home from the hospital. But I was too young to understand that Penny would never be the younger sister I asked for. That she would never be like other little girls. That she would never be ‘normal’. I was too young to really, truly understand.
All the same, years passed and Penny learned to walk. She learned to speak and communicate. She learned to comprehend the world around her. And we, Penny and I, slowly grew older.
My mother left my father when I was sixteen; a rocky marriage terminating in an angry, bitter divorce that left my mother, Penny, and I without a place to live. Facing homelessness, we moved in with my grandparents, cramming into their small, two-bedroom trailer-home settled on a massive, flat slab of Kansas farmland. We lost everything in the divorce, and the move to Kansas meant leaving my friends and most of my belongings behind. Robbed of what I thought I deserved, I grew angry and refused to comprehend why my father and mother could not fix their relationship. I refused to understand.
But Penny tried and, in her own way, I think she understood more about the divorce than I did. She spent entire days on the porch that summer, sitting on the wooden stairs in the muggy heat of Kansas, staring at the endless, empty plains. She was thinking. Trying to understand why we would never see our father again. Trying to understand why he left. Why he wanted nothing more to do with us. Maybe, like mother and I, she secretly blamed herself. Blamed herself for something that she had no hand in. Something that she, at eight, could not truly understand.
And as Penny sat, watching the plains, Mother and I fought. We screamed, shouting, trying to force each other to understand. But only pain came from those fights. And, all the while, Penny sat in silence, staring at the flat expanse of Kansas beyond the trailer home. Even as mother and I screamed at one another, she would sit, silent, lost in thought. Then I would leave, slamming the rickety screen door shut behind me, shouting a last, biting remark as I left. And, without a word, Penny would stand and follow me.
At the time, I thought boredom drove her to trudge after me on those long, numberless walks down the dirt road extending from the old farm house. But whatever her reasons, time and time again, she was there, lagging a few steps behind, tripping on the occasional stone, brushing her brown hair out of her face with the flat of her hand, sweating, puffing, but never giving up. In my frustration, I would scream at her, telling her to go home and to leave me alone. But, adjusting her baggy, ill-fitting pants, she would shuffle after me all the faster.
Miles would fade away, and eventually, we would reach the highway where the dirt road ended, and, our walk finally over, we would look over the horizon. An hour would pass, it would grow dark, and Penny, face still red with exertion, would take my hand and silently pull me home.
Penny, I realized one night, walking under a canopy of Kansas stars, understood. And, as we returned home, as she gripped my hand and dragged me over the creek and past the grasses, I learned to understand too. I learned to understand why my mother divorced my father and why my father abandoned us in the endless plains of Kansas. I came to understand myself, my anger, and my frustration. But most of all, walking home, pulled onto the crooked, farmhouse porch and through the rickety screen door, I came to understand Penny.
And slowly, the fighting stopped, and we became happy again.